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“Not based on a true story. Not based on true events. Just true.”
These are the opening lines of the movie Catfish. Packaged and sold like as a documentary, the movie follows the exploits of two “real life” brothers, Ariel and Yaniv (Nev) Schulman on their adventures into the mystery of internet social networking. Particularly the film follows Nev, an independent filmmaker who lives in New York, and his internet escapades with a young girl, Abby Faccio, and her family who live in rural Michigan. Nev meets the family via Facebook, and he becomes infatuated with the older daughter Megan with whom he develops a “cyber relationship” comprised of email, instant messaging, Facebook chats, and phone calls. Nev eventually travels to Michigan for a surprise visit to the Faccio family, and he discovers that, in the internet world, things aren’t always what they seem. Picking up where David Fincher’s The Social Network leaves off, the film shows a post-Facebook world where identity is a question of media manipulation, where the boundaries and definitions of ethics are murky, and where nothing can be trusted, even this film itself. Marketed both as a documentary and as a cousin to the “home movie” horror classic Blair Witch Project, Catfish is an odd hybrid of a film that, in the end, leaves us questioning what exactly defines film in the post-internet era and whether or not a movie like Catfish can even be categorized as an actual movie or just some kind of mishmash of media that manipulates, provokes, and exploits the audience and the subjects in the film itself.
Certainly the opening lines of the film sound familiar. Haven’t we read these lines in countless horror films, warning us that the horror that we are about to experience is true and could happen to us? But what exactly is the horror in the movie Catfish? The movie starts off as an incredibly banal “home movie” about Nev’s various chats, text messaging and other virtual communications with his pet internet family and his increasing infatuation with the older daughter Megan Faccio. Frankly, I questioned how I was going to endure such mindless banality for the 87 minute duration of the film. I had no interest in watching these guys surf the web while relaying a stream of verbal emoticons. The first half of the movie is comprised of a sloppily patched together composite of Nev’s interactions with the Faccio family via a whole mess of media communications that are not altogether interesting. The young daughter Abby is supposedly an artist prodigy, and her mother Angela, who also befriends Nev, plays the role of agent. Abby likes to send Nev her original artwork which, according to her and her mother Angela, is selling like hotcakes up in Michigan. The older daughter Megan is a hot blonde red-blooded American babe who rides horses and engages in sexy flirtations with Nev. All of this information about the family is delivered through a barrage of new media communications – Facebook profiles, cell phone conversations, email messages, text messages and other internet interactions. Megan begins sending Nev the songs she has written and performed since apparently she is not just a babe who rides horses but also an incredibly talented songwriter and musician. Nev becomes completely infatuated and smitten with the multi-talented and beautiful Megan even though he has never actually met her. For this seemingly endless part of the film, I felt like I was an unwilling participant in a college dorm room conversation. Why should I care about Nev and his pet internet family? Why was I even watching this incredibly tedious home movie/documentary?
Then something happens. Nev realizes that one of the songs that Megan sent him sounds familiar. He and Ariel engage in an internet detective mission. Using everything from Youtube to Napster-type music downloading sites and a hell of a lot of Google, the brothers discover that the songs Megan has been sending them are written and performed by different people. They are not Megan Faccio. They also discover that the gallery where Abby supposedly sells her art does not exist and is a building that has been vacant for years. At this point, the movie switches genre gears. Sure, it’s still a home movie/documentary, but it also begins to step into the horror film territory which we are expecting from those opening lines. Things are not what they seem, and Nev and Ariel decide to take a surprise trip to rural Michigan to discover who Megan really is and what the deal is with Angela Faccio and her family. In other words, they embark on a witch hunt (see Blair Witch Project).
Nev and Ariel leave the arty comfort of their New York apartment (a.k.a. their simulated dorm room) and drive to Michigan via Colorado. It is nighttime when they arrive in the small town where the Faccio’s live, and they decide to take a ride out to Megan’s horse ranch. As Nev and Ariel drive a down dark, empty rural road and pull their rental car up to the vast foreboding façade of a barn, we know for sure that this is where the horror lies. We have arrived. This is where we are going to get the scares that those opening lines of the movie promise. The scene has all the elements. It’s nighttime, and the place is seemingly abandoned. The two young men walk up to the barn to peek inside a dark window, and surely we know that the “real” Megan Faccio is undoubtedly some kind of psychopathic rogue farmer who is going to fly out of the woods wielding an ax or a chainsaw at any moment. Yes, this is rural America. This is where creepy families who do crazy shit like kill people live, right? (See Texas Chainsaw Massacre for details.) We are ready to jump out of our seats and hide under our chairs when Nev and Ariel lean their faces into that barn window. And what happens? Nothing. No horror. No chainsaws. No creepy guys in burlap bag masks. The scene totally deflates, and the two guys hit the road without incident.
The next morning the Schulman brothers pull into the small town of Ishpeming where the Faccio family lives. What we discover is a quiet, empty Middle America town, the gutted remains of America’s industrial and farming past, a place left behind in the new media world. Downtown is full of abandoned buildings plastered with for sale and for rent signs that have most likely been hanging there for years. Nev and Ariel find the Faccio house. A typical American home, the house could be located in Anytown, U.S.A. Well kept and cared for, the place is neither menacing nor downtrodden. It has no hints of “White Trash Horror” that you find in such films as The Hills Have Eyes or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and there is not a creepy hint of witchery such as we find in Blair Witch Project. Nev boldly knocks on the door, and again we expect something terrifying to happen. Will he be greeted with a shotgun? Will he be chopped up and served for dinner? Or will he be left knocking on the door of an empty house? The answer is none of the above. Instead, Angela Faccio herself answers the door, and we finally get to meet this family – the source of the horror – face-to-face.
What does the face of horror look like? It looks like a lonely, overweight, middle-aged, Middle American woman. Angela actually invites the brothers into her home as if it is the most ordinary thing in the world that they show up on her doorstep. We discover that, yes, Angela Faccio does indeed exist as does her daughter Abby, but Abby is not an artist. She’s just a regular kid. Angela is the artist who has been pawning off her paintings to Nev pretending that they’re Abby’s, so she could worm her lonely way into Nev’s life. Likewise, we meet Angela’s husband – a working class matter-of-fact man wearing a baseball cap and jeans –, and he is just an ordinary unthreatening guy. Sure, we expect him to get angry, threaten or go postal on the two brothers for invading his home and privacy. We expect him to at least be harboring some terrifying secret in the basement. But he does neither. Megan, Nev’s infatuation, is missing from the picture and is apparently in rehab somewhere down south. This is not the family Nev read about on their Facebook profiles!
We do, however, get to meet two new Faccio family members – Angela’s husbands sons from a previous marriage who happen to be two adult men who are severely mentally and physically disabled. Much of the dialogue that takes place inside of the house is punctuated by the sounds of one or both of these brothers moaning, drooling, or slapping themselves. This is not the picture of the Faccio family that Nev and Ariel were expecting, nor is it the horror film scenario that we were expecting. The most horrifying thing about this family is how ordinary they are and unglamorous they are, how devoid of flashy icons and techno glitz. Even the “handicapped” children undermine our expectations for horror and are harmless (unlike, say, Leatherface whose disabilities manifest themselves through the murderous whine of a chainsaw). What’s most horrifying about this scene is that it breaks the barrier of illusion that the internet creates. All the sheen is stripped off and we are confronted face-to-face with the naked truth of an ordinary family in the privacy of their home. All the barriers are down, as we find ourselves standing in their living room with Nev and Ariel.
The great mystery to be revealed is that Angela created the entire internet network of Faccio family members and friends. She gives Nev a tour through her complicated computer and phone system where she creates and tracks all of her identities. She created multiple Facebook profiles, wrote herself comments, set-up email accounts and exchanged email messages and text messages with herself posing as different family members and friends. Angela presents us with a new kind of schizophrenia for the new media age. She used all of the internet mediums she could manipulate to create a hybrid identity composed of multiple identities. But this is no schizophrenic horror picture. Instead it is just a story of a sad and lonely woman who has created an artificial construction of life so that she can find some freedom in the limits of the reality of her own life. In other words, Angela’s identity is a hybrid composed of multiple internet identities just like the film itself is a hybrid composed of bits and pieces of media and film genre.
The horror in this movie is two-fold. First of all, the horror is that identity can be so easily fabricated and manipulated through new media technology and that we can find ourselves interacting with fictions without even knowing it. The movie exposes the artificial construction of such entities as Facebook which give a faux sense of community when really they’re just platforms that allow people to script their lives as they choose and interact with a bunch of other scripted lives behind the safety of the computer screen. Secondly, the horror comes when that sense of safety and boundaries that the internet falsely constructs comes crashing down. Our barriers between the artificial sheen and protection of internet identity and the banal truth of real life are dismantled the minute theSchulman brothers step into that house. These two sides work against themselves. On the one hand, we are asked to question the authenticity of internet identity, but on the other we are also asked to acknowledge that there is a certain sense of safety and comfort by limiting human interactions to the scripted world of the virtual world.
I recently taught this film to a freshmen New Media class at the university. When I asked the students how they felt when the brothers enter Angela’s home and discover the secret “horror” of the Faccio family (that they are ordinary people with a kind of sad desperation), the majority of the students answered with one word: “uncomfortable.” Indeed, it is uncomfortable. If the movie is being honest about what it’s doing, then we have basically followed these two guys into the private home of a family in Michigan and watch as their secrets and private life are exposed on film. It’s uncomfortable to watch Angela’s world of lies unfold. It’s uncomfortable to watch the young girl Abby bounce up and down in front of the camera as if she is completely oblivious to how much her identity has been manipulated by both Angela and the filmmakers by using her as their subject. It’s uncomfortable to watch the two disabled sons slap at themselves and cry for food. It’s uncomfortable because our sense of boundaries have been compromised. We feel complicit in an act of exploitation. There is a sense that we have broken some ethical code that has not yet been written. It’s also uncomfortable because the wall of protection that the internet world provides has come down, and this reality is much too real for our comfort.
Then again, we have to ask ourselves if the movie is manipulating us in the same way that Angela manipulates Nev. How much can we trust the film’s authenticity? Angela uses everything on the internet at her disposal — Youtube, Google, Facebook, music downloads, etc. — to create an entirely fictional identity. Is the film doing the same thing? The movie is basically comprised of scripts within scripts — text messages, emails, Facebook exchanges. Given these are the very same media that Angela manipulates to create her fictitious identities, I can’t help but ask how much the movie is guilty of doing the same thing. Are we being duped by the movie just like Nev was duped by Angela?
I looked at the movie’s website to see if I could learn more about the movie, but what I found was a whole new layer of duplicitous narration. The movie’s website takes us straight to Nev’s computer desktop and basically turns our computer screen into Nev’s. In a click of the mouse, our boundaries feel compromised again as we are unexpectedly put into the position of voyeur. We see chat windows popping up with conversations between Nev and Megan. We can cruise through the files on Nev’s hard drive, look at his photos, and explore his documents. We can read his email conversations, including new messages that seem to pop up as we gaze into Nev’s cyber life. In other words, we are invited to be voyeurs and to feel like we are “hacking” into Nev’s identity and taking a look at his personal life from the inside of his world as created on his computer. For a moment, the feeling is unsettling, like the ground under our feet has shifted. We find ourselves in a place that we had no intention of going to, just like we find ourselves when we follow Nev and Ariel into Angela’s living room. The effect is of spying on Nev is real, but I shook it off fairly quickly and got a laugh out of the fabrication. Needless to say, multiple visits to site yield the same messages circling in a loop and reveal it for the fabrication that it is.
After my investigation into Nev’s world, I had to go back to those original opening lines of the film. How much can I really trust that anything in this movie is “just true”? In a way, by starting with those lines and then proceeding down the many layers of deception within the film, the movie questions the authenticity of any media fabrications. Can any film, even a documentary, really be “true” since all media is constructed with intent? Even if the raw material is comprised of “facts,” the final product is always a conscious manipulation of the material to deliver the intent of the filmmakers. Or, in the case with the internet, all identities are created with the intent of the people creating them, to be the person they want you to see rather than the people they really are. When I taught this film to the New Media class, I opened my talk by asking how many students believed what they saw in the movie was true. The majority of the students raised their hands. At the end of the class, I asked the same question, and none of the students raised their hands. Sure, parts of the film are probably true, but those parts were assembled to create an illusion and a fiction out of truth.
Speaking of how the movie is put together, the entire film is assembled like some kind of D.I.Y. Youtube student video project. Its low-fi home movie production values coupled with its messy hodgepodge of new media material gives the whole thing a sense of authenticity just by looking crappy. It makes us ask how something so seemingly ramshackle, unrefined and sloppy could not be authentic. Given the levels of egregious exploitation in the movie (from exploiting the audience to exploiting the young girl Abby and the two seriously disabled young men), I have to ask myself if the crappy quality of the movie is intentionally crappy to make a point about authenticity or if the movie is just authentically crappy. Is the real site of horror in the movie the fact that we live in a time when the internet can so easily manipulate our sense of identity and authenticity or is it the fact that the internet has made a kind of open playground for people’s lives which can then be exploited by young filmmakers who think they’re doing something smart? Is Angela, with her internet schizophrenia, just another victim being exploited by the Schulman brothers in their film, or was she complicit in the exploitation, using her family, her children and her disabled stepsons for her own benefit? If we believe the ending credits, Angela not only lied about everything about herself, but she also received a lot of artistic notoriety after appearing in this film. The movie resists answering those questions, but it does prompt us to ask more questions about how much we manipulate and are manipulated by media. Whether the story in Catfish is true or not, the movie opens up a lot of questions about ethics, identity and media manipulation even while it crosses the boundaries of comfort and exploitation.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn, Avanti-Popolo, and the Berkeley Poetry Review. Someday she’ll finish her memoir book about her teenage life on the streets in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: email@example.com.